In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Health Education

  • Introduction
  • Definition and Scope of Practice
  • Historical and Philosophical Foundations
  • Theories and Models
  • Community Assessment
  • Planning
  • Implementation and Best Practices
  • Relationship to Health Professions, Health-Enhancing Systems, and Sectors
  • Health Communication, Social Marketing, and Policy Advocacy
  • Evaluation
  • Professionalism and Ethics

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Public Health Health Education
Elaine Auld, Stephen F. Gambescia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 February 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0044


Health education is defined as “any combination of learning experiences designed to facilitate voluntary actions conducive to health” (Green and Kreuter 2005). Although the history of health education dates back to the 19th century, it was not until the 1940s that the field began evolving as a distinct discipline. Over time, health education’s theory and practice base have broadened from focusing on one-to-one and mass media behavioral interventions to encompass responsibility for policies, systems, and environments that affect population health. In the early 21st century, the terms health education and health promotion (i.e., the latter including an ecological approach) are often used interchangeably in the United States, while internationally health promotion is used as an overarching concept that includes health education. Health education is considered a mature profession given that it has developed a discrete body of knowledge, defined competencies, a certification system for individuals, a code of ethics, a federal occupational classification, and recognized accreditation processes in higher education. Health education is generally aligned with the behavioral and social sciences as one of the core dimensions of public health study and practice. Additionally, the field draws from theories and models from education, health studies, communications, and other diverse areas. The unique combination of these knowledge areas forms the basis for health education competencies. Health educators employ a core set of competencies, regardless of the diverse practice settings in which they work (i.e., schools, universities, health departments, community-based organizations, health-care settings, worksites, and international organizations). This bibliography is organized around major areas of health education practice, such as assessing, planning, implementing, managing, and evaluating health education or health promotion programs, services, and interventions. It includes historical and philosophical foundations, and development of its professionalism and ethics. The discipline embraces both qualitative and quantitative methods, community-based participatory research, health communication and social marketing principles, and policy and media advocacy to accomplish program objectives. Health educators are stalwarts in the fight for social justice and believe that the health of a population should be a priority in any society.

Definition and Scope of Practice

The definition and scope of health education have evolved since the 1950s, particularly in relation to improved understanding of behavioral and socio-ecological influences on health. The early definition of health education in Griffiths 1972 primarily emphasized the provision of learning experiences to promote voluntary changes to individual health. Subsequent work in Robertson and Minkler 1994, Schwartz, et al. 1995, and Downie, et al. 1996 provides a broader context of health education in relation to policy, systems, and environmental changes inherent in the practice of health promotion and related philosophies. Taub, et al. 2009 provides a concise overview of how the terms health education and health promotion are used differently in the early 21st century in the United States versus internationally, due to historical, cultural, and political considerations. Gold and Miner 2002 and Modeste, et al. 2004 provide good sources of contemporary definitions for many other terms, which is especially important due to the eclectic base from which health education draws.

  • Downie, Robert, Carol Tannahill, and Andrew Tannahill. 1996. Health promotion: Models and values. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive and systematic review of how to define health promotion and the range of underlying values held by those in practice. One of the few works that addresses the influence of values held by the profession, government entities, and communities on health promotion.

  • Gold, Robert S., and Kathleen R. Miner. 2002. 2000 Joint Committee on Health Education and Promotion Terminology. Journal of School Health 7.2: 3–7.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1746-1561.2002.tb06501.x

    The Joint Committee convenes every decade to evaluate the current terminology in health education, which changes with the advancement of scholarship, technological developments, and professional practice. This citation is the seventh major health education terminology report issued during the past seventy years.

  • Griffiths, William. 1972. Health education definitions, problems, and philosophies. Health Education Monographs 31:12–14.

    This health education pioneer defines health education as an “attempt to close the gap between what is known about optimum health practice and that which is actually practiced.” Later, as part of the views offered to President Richard M. Nixon’s First White House Conference on Health Education, Griffiths also asserted the health educator’s role in changing societal conditions that influence health.

  • Modeste, Naomi, Teri Tamayose, and Helen H. Marshak. 2004. Dictionary of public health promotion and education: Terms and concepts. 2d ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Brief dictionary of the most common and more esoteric terms used in health promotion and education. Expands on concepts beyond a rote definition, which is useful to both students and practitioners.

  • Robertson, A., and Meredith Minkler. 1994. New health promotion movement: A critical examination. Health Education Quarterly 21:295–312.

    Explores the various meanings of health education to date and identifies the characteristics of a new health promotion movement and implications for practice and research.

  • Schwartz, Randy, Robert Goodman, and Alan Steckler. 1995. Policy advocacy interventions for health promotion and education: Advancing the state of practice. Health Education Quarterly 22.4: 421–426.

    This theme issue outlines the role of policy advocacy in achieving health education and health promotion objectives. Includes seminal articles on environmental and policy change for tobacco, cardiovascular disease, physical activity, and nutrition.

  • Taub, Alyson, John P. Allegrante, Margaret P. Barry, and Keiko Sakagami. 2009. Perspectives on terminology and conceptual and professional issues in health education and health promotion credentialing. Health Education & Behavior 36.3: 439–450.

    DOI: 10.1177/1090198109333826

    Explains how the terms health education and health promotion have been defined and used differently in the United States and other countries, and includes a succinct and useful table. Also addresses key international perspectives on professional competencies, standards, and accreditation.

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